A trio of teenagers were honored Friday night at the seventh annual Shaw Wilkerson Outstanding Achievement Award ceremony.
The award is named for a Guyton man with autism. Wilkerson founded the local ministry My Father’s House, which hosts the ceremony at Guyton Christian Church along with the men of GAP (God’s Apostles Providing) Ministry.
This year’s three nominees — Thomas Lanham, Lauren Todd and Morgan Waters — each received a trophy and a gift card. Lanham was recognized as this year’s SWOAA recipient.
“They’re all winners,” said the evening’s host, David Lamb of GAP.
The award is given annually to a local student with a developmental and/or learning disability. However, Lamb said, anyone who calls them “handicapped” is mistaken.
“Every candidate here exemplifies courage, charity and compassion,” he said. “These people not only go through storms, they live in storms — every single day. And they excel.”
Lanham was a happy baby but progressed at a slower rate than other children and “had no interest in standing,” according to his mom Heather Ross. He was diagnosed with autism around 18 months old and began physical, occupational and speech therapy.
After needing braces for his legs, Lanham stood up on his own for the first time on Christmas Eve, five days shy of his second birthday. He continued therapy and began walking on his own, and even signed up to play basketball at the YMCA.
Today, Lanham enjoys attending South Effingham High School. He is enrolled with Faith Equestrian Therapeutic Center and works as a bus boy at Frank and Linda’s Diner.
“Thomas has come so far,” Ross said. “He is a wonderful, kind, caring, gentle person. I am deeply honored and blessed to call Thomas Lanham my son.”
Todd also is involved with Faith Equestrian. She began horseback riding with FETC in 2010 and participated in the state equestrian Special Olympics the last two years.
That’s just one way Todd stays busy despite her cerebral palsy. She enjoys the Effingham County Navigator Team’s activities and events for special-needs children, and she is actively involved at her church.
The final nominee, Waters, explained in his bio for the competition, “What would I change about my life? Not a thing. I am a pretty content guy.”
Waters quit talking when he was about 3 1/2 years old and subsequently was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. He did start talking again, but acknowledges it’s mainly to communicate when he wants something.
Waters’ parents recognized his frustration in school, and their home-schooling for the past seven years has been a much more effective approach. He also enjoys swimming, riding his bike provided by the AMBUCS organization, listening to music, going for drives in the car, playing on the computer and swinging on his hammock.
“I’m simply in awe of every single one of them,” Lamb said of the three nominees.
Answer to a prayer
Along with honoring Lanham, Todd and Waters, GAP Ministry and My Father’s House presented a $725 check to Mitzi Williams-Proffitt toward a Hoyt Running Chair for her son Joshua Williams.
Williams, who turned 20 on Sunday, has cerebral palsy and has twice undergone a spinal fusion. Nonetheless, after his mom took up running as a hobby, he too wanted to experience the camaraderie and the thrill of a race.
“He said, ‘I want to know what it’s like to have that wind in my face,’” Williams-Proffitt recalled. “I thought, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do that.’”
They learned about the Hoyt Running Chair, which someone can ride in comfortably while a runner pushes them in a 5K or 10K race or a marathon. They saw it as an opportunity to enjoy races together and give Williams more opportunities for social activities.
Of course, the specially-designed, three-wheel chair is not cheap. The family received some donations toward the chair, totaling about $400 over the course of a year.
“I told Joshua we’ll just keep praying, and eventually it’ll happen,” his mother said.
The $725 donation won’t cover the entire cost, but it was a big step. Now that they have topped $1,000 in donations received, the family can order a temporary running chair from the Hoyt Foundation and start enjoying runs together.
Williams and his mom were impressed by GAP Ministry’s generosity. Though Williams-Proffitt works with Shaw Wilkerson’s mother Vicki in Parent to Parent of Georgia, she has no connection to GAP.
“Who would do that?” she said of GAP’s donation. “That’s amazing. They don’t even know him.”